Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Reviews: Dance Massive


By Shaun McLeod

I'm just going to have to accept that my job brings with it the very small chance that on any given night a flying soup spoon is going to hit me in the privates. This is a conclusion I've reached after much reflection brought on by a flying soup spoon hitting me in the privates. I can't come up with statistical proof that I'm more endangered than most in this regard, but when I compare the number of times most people have been hit in the privates with a flying soup spoon (0) and the number of times I've been hit in the privates with a flying soup spoon (1) I think there must be something to it.

You know, now that I think about it, it might have been a dessert spoon. The offending piece of cutlery was just one of hundreds of knives, forks and spoons which were employed for various obscure purposes by the four dancers of The Weight of the Thing Left Its Mark, but perhaps ironically it was the thing that had the most impact on me. It wasn't much of an impact, though, and it left no actual mark or anything.

The Weight of the Thing... is improvisational dance directed and choreographed by Shaun McLeod. I've read others praising the piece but I didn't really find myself responding to it in any particular manner. Improvised dance can often leave me that way – it's as if I'm being presented with a bunch of answers without being informed of the question. It can be surprising, but if I don't have an inkling why this movement or phrase was chosen over all of the other possibilities which might have occurred, it can be the choreographic equivalent of peach loggerhead very adagio the crepeee bullfrog bullfrog inodoro. The soup spoon thing was an accident (OR WAS IT) but with impro, the distinction between accident and intention can be fuzzy.

You could say the same thing about someone like Deborah Hay, whose technique literally involves dancers addressing themselves to particular questions in the moment without letting the audience know what those questions might be. But at least I know Hay's philosophy quite well, and can see how an individual performer is embracing the kind of challenges she sets out, if not the particular problems themselves. It might just be, then, that I don't know Shaun McLeod's work, so I don't know what's informing the choices of his dancers.

Season ended.


By Madeleine Flynn and Tim Humphrey

There's not a terribly strong critical community discussing sound art in Australia today. There are voices out there, but compared to artists working in most other art forms I imagine sound artists have a pretty tough time being heard, so to speak. And I don't claim it as an area I'm particularly schooled in, either, though I know there's a very rich tradition of avant garde aural art that's being furthered by some very talented people in this country today. It would be hard to visit this exhibition/installation/event without gaining an inkling of appreciation for that tradition, too: it's worthwhile even just as an impressionistic historical record.

Madeleine Flynn and Tim Humphrey have assembled an enormous archive of music with a connection to dance – from works specifically composed for choreography to music that inspired people who compose(d) for dance. The track listing is played randomly for the audience, who are left on their own in an installation setting lit by a dazzling, subtly shifting lighting array. The effect isn't immediate. It takes a while to feel immersed in the space, and it's recommended that you try to stay there for half an hour. I managed that easily, and could have stayed longer. Best of all, I was the only person around when I visited the piece, and this made it an even more powerful experience.

What shocked me was how gently disorienting the whole shebang can be. At one point a vocal line emerged during a song (by Ligeti, I think) and I jumped, suddenly sure there was someone else in the room with me. Later I was a bit afraid again, for a different reason. Near the end I thought I might be having a mild stroke, but it was just my eyes having trouble focusing on the shadows I was casting on a wall. All of this was inspired by a bunch of songs on random. It's a really good selection.

And dance seems somehow intrinsic to their composition. Even though there are no dancers in this work, it's hard not to start to see a dance in your mind's eye, or feel one in your body. Maybe it's just your imagination attempting to fill the void where the choreography should be (it's part of Dance Massive, after all) but I did have the distinct feeling that some music, or sound art, has a connection to choreography that's much deeper, more embedded.

Anyway, it's free and it's on days and some evenings until Sunday night. At Dancehouse; bookings not required.


By Narelle Benjamin

This is beautiful dance performed by beautiful dancers. There's no arguing that. You'd be hard pressed to find a pair of performers more watchable than Kristina Chan and Paul White. It left me a little cold, though. While it's technically elegant and immaculately danced, I think it could have benefited from some close dramaturgy – there are ideas in play, but they're thrown around in a loose manner that doesn't match the amazing accuracy of the dancers themselves.

The central motif is the mirror. Chan and White interact with mirrors large and small, echo each other's movements, dance with video projections of themselves or make reference to countless stories of mirrors, from Alice in Wonderland to Sleeping Beauty to the myth of Narcissus. In one particularly striking sequence White sprouts mirrors like wings, tripling his reflection so that he becomes a kind of vain Cerberus. I'm not really sure why, except that it looked great.

There are moments when the reflections have a strong impact. At times it seems as though there are four, six, eight dancers on stage at the same time, though the conscious mind knows that isn't the case. It seems a potent evocation of the mirror stage of psychoanalytic thought, when we misrecognise ourselves in the glass, not comprehending that the reflection is our own, and pondering the strange power we have over this puppet's movements. But for all its power, I wasn't particularly energised by In Glass, and was left wondering if I'd missed something.

Season ended.


By Branch Nebula

I have no idea who Branch Nebula are but this show was a sheer delight. Not that its subject matter is particularly joyous – it addresses the lives of menial and industrial workers in our cities, from cleaners to hospitality staff, in ways that are often troubling (you learn more about bacteria than you might want to know, for instance). But the cleverness of the presentation can't fail to charm.

It commences with the audience wandering into the playing space, where there are no chairs, no set, no props. There's a sole performer, who immediately begins to explain what we've done wrong so far and how we should appropriately respond to the rest of the work. We're to empathise with the situations of performers when required, and at other times maintain a cool objective distance in order to appreciate the points being made. She then asks audience members to help her remove items of clothing one by one and, almost naked, suffers some kind of terrible violence (a factory accident? A workplace assault?) She lies on the floor in abject humiliation, screaming at us to look away. It's a sublime theatrical moment – we're there to look. That's part of our job description. And over the next hour, we look at people we normally don't see, despite their constant presence in our lives.

This is dance theatre, but the spread of performance styles it engages with is broad. Breakdance, contemporary, martial arts, parkour, song, spoken word, even soccer. Soccer! There's a riveting sequence in which a man messing around with a soccer ball – the way he might on a lunch break – begins using a woman's body as a sort of human goalpost, manipulating her more and more violently as a tool for his entertainment. There's no didactic point to be made, but the wealth of associations it conjures is gripping.

The coup de theatre comes in a late scene, where a crew of serving staff, grins fixed like a rictus, seat a group of audience members at a long table for a feast. Without revealing too much, the culinary presentation quickly comes to resemble the old Pro Hart Stainmaster ad. The look of unbridled glee on the face of a kid who planted herself front and centre seemed to express what everyone else was thinking right then. This is messy art – and the dance styles on offer are a long way from the cool, technically precise formalism of a lot of Australian choreography. But we live in messy times, and this production seems to have nailed something of the world we live in despite its ragged edges. It seems fitting that one of the questions I left with was: who's going to clean all of this up?

Season ended.

Monday, March 21, 2011

Green Room Awards 2010

Here's ya winners, folks - reading through this list reminded me of what an exceptional year 2010 was for Melbourne performance. Then again, this week I was thinking about how 2011 has already thrown some amazing stuff in my direction, so perhaps the exception is becoming the norm. Either way, things are looking pretty healthy.

Theatre – Alternative and Hybrid Performance
Outstanding Production: Pin Drop – Tamara Saulwick
Composition & Sound Design: Jethro Woodward – Irony is not Enough (Fragment 31)
Production Design: Claire Britton, Matt Priest, Danny Egger – Conceptual Design – Hole in the Wall (Matt Priest & Claire Britton / Next Wave Festival)
Video Design: Fleur Elise Nobel – 2 Dimensional Life of Her
Mise-en-Scene: The Bougainville Photoplay Project – Paul Dwyer
Site-Specific Production: Southern Crossings – One Step at a Time Like This

Best Production: Yana Alana and tha Paranas in Concert – Gasworks & Arts Victoria in association with Melbourne Workers Theatre and Yana Alana and tha Paranas
Artiste: Yana Alana – Yana Alana and tha Paranas in Concert
Ensemble: Yana Alana and the Paranas – Yana Alana and tha Paranas in Concert
Original Songs: Yana Alana and tha Paranas – Yana Alana and tha Paranas in Concert
Director: Anni Davey – Yana Alana and the Paranas in Concert
Musical Direction: Sarah Ward, Bec Matthews & Ania Reynolds – Yana Alana and tha Paranas in Concert
Innovative Use of Form: Emily Taylor – Hello You
Contribution to Cabaret: Kaye Sera

Music/Sound Composition and Performance: Ezio Bosso & George Gorga – We Unfold (Sydney Dance Company)
Design: Jacob Nash – Set – Artefact (Bangarra Dance Theatre)
Male Dancer: Tim Ohl – Mix Tape (Chunky Move)
Female Dancer: Emily Amisano – We Unfold (Sydney Dance Company)
Ensemble: Bangarra Dance Theatre – Of Earth and Sky
Concept & Realisation: Private Dances (Next Wave Festival & Natalie Cursio)
Betty Pounder Award for Choreography:
Frances Rings – Artefact (Bangarra Dance Theatre)AND: Stephanie Lake – Mix Tape (Chunky Move)

Theatre – Independent
Male Performer: Thomas Conroy (Henry) – Something Natural But Very Childish (Dirty Pretty Theatre / La Mama)
Female Performer: Justine Campbell (Jane Franklin) – The Fate of Franklin and his Gallant Crew (Four Larks Theatre)
Ensemble: Us (Grit Theatre / The Function Room)
Design: Sebastian Peters-Lazaro & Ellen Strasser – Set & Properties Design – Body of work (Four Larks Theatre)
Lighting Design: Bluebottle – Ben Cobham with Jenny Hector – Lighting Design & Realisation – Madeleine (Jenny Kemp & Black Sequin Productions / Arts House)
Sound / Composition: Mat Diafos Sweeney (Four Larks Theatre) – Music/Sound/Composition – Body of work
Direction: Gary Abrahams – Body of work
Production: Us (Grit Theatre / The Function Room)

Music Theatre
Direction: Richard Eyre & Matthew Bourne – Mary Poppins (Disney / Cameron Mackintosh)
Costume and/or Set Design: Bob Crowley – Set & Costumes – Mary Poppins (Disney / Cameron Mackintosh)
Lighting Design: Trudy Dalgleish – Hairspray (Dainty Consolidated Entertainment / Roadshow Live)
Sound: Peter Grubb – Mary Poppins (Disney / Cameron Mackintosh)
Choreography: Matthew Bourne & Stephen Mear – Mary Poppins (Disney / Cameron Mackintosh)
Musical Direction: Michael Tyack – Mary Poppins (Disney / Cameron Mackintosh)
Female Artist – Leading Role: Verity Hunt-Ballard – Mary Poppins (Disney / Cameron Mackintosh)
Male Artist – Leading Role: Geoffrey Rush – The Drowsy Chaperone (Melbourne Theatre Company)
Male Artist – Featured Role: Philip Quast – Mary Poppins (Disney / Cameron Mackintosh)
Female Artist – Featured Role: Esther Hannaford – Hairspray (Dainty Consolidated Entertainment / Roadshow Live)
Featured Ensemble or Full Ensemble Performance: Mary Poppins (Disney / Cameron Mackintosh)
Best Production: Mary Poppins (Disney / Cameron Mackintosh)

Production: La Sonnambula – Opera Australia
Design: Adam Gardir (set) and Harriet Oxley (costume) – Angelique (Victorian Opera)
Female Lead: Emma Matthews (Amina) – La Sonnambula (Opera Australia)
Male Lead: Peter Coleman-Wright (Harry Joy) – Bliss (Opera Australia)
Female Support: Catherine Carby (Orovsky) – Fledermaus and (Hippolyta) – Midsummer Night’s Dream (Opera Australia)
Male Support: Conal Coad (Bottom/Pyramus) – A Midsummer Night’s Dream (Opera Australia)
Conductor: Paul Kildea – The Turn of the Screw (Victorian Opera) and A Midsummer Night’s Dream (Opera Australia)
Director: Julie Edwardson – La Sonnambula (Opera Australia)
Lighting: Nigel Levings – Bliss (Opera Australia)

Theatre - Companies
Lighting Design: Rachel Burke – Moth (Malthouse Theatre / Arena Theatre Company)
Set/Costume Design: Shaun Gurton (set) – Richard III (Melbourne Theatre Company)
Sound / Composition: Jethro Woodward (composer) – Moth (Malthouse Theatre / Arena Theatre Company)
Female Actor: Alison Whyte (Queen Elizabeth) – Richard III (Melbourne Theatre Company)
Male Actor: Ewen Leslie (Richard) – Richard III (Melbourne Theatre Company)
Direction: Simon Phillips – Richard III (Melbourne Theatre Company)
Production: Thyestes – Malthouse Theatre / Hayloft Project
Ensemble: Thyestes – Malthouse Theatre / Hayloft Project

Association Awards
Lifetime Achievement Award: Carrillo Gantner AO
Technical Achievement Award: David Miller, Production Manager, Malthouse Theatre
Award for Outstanding Contribution to Melbourne Theatre: Lisle Jones
Best New Original Writing for the Melbourne Stage: Declan Greene – Moth (Malthouse Theatre / Arena Theatre Company)
Best Adaptation for the Melbourne Stage: Simon Stone, Thomas Henning, Chris Ryan & Mark Winter – Thyestes after Seneca (Malthouse Theatre / The Hayloft Project)

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Review: Save for Crying


By Angus Cerini.

You may have missed your chance to see Angus Cerini's latest; I have a feeling it might have sold out the rest of its run. If not, do whatever it takes to score a ticket – it's not just his finest work to date but one of the finest pieces of theatre in a long time, and lingers in the memory long after it's over.

I won't write too much about the specifics of the show here because part of its power is derived from the experience of entering its unique world on your own trajectory, trying to determine just what it is you're encountering. I did want to throw up a few thoughts in the meantime, though, if only as a way of thinking through the eerie dynamic that sets the piece apart from most frameworks of interpretation we might bring to the production. In some ways it seems so reminiscent of territory explored by Beckett, Pinter or Keene, but it's also utterly distinct. I'm trying to pinpoint just how.

The outsider is probably the key figure of modernism – the alienated individual existing within but not as a part of society. He (it's usually a he) is Ellison's Invisible Man, Camus' l'etranger, Chaplin's little tramp, Salinger's Holden Caulfield, Dostoevsky's Underground Man, and pretty much everyone Beckett ever wrote. I doubt you could get through high school English without discovering a whole bunch of outsiders to add to the list. The modernist outsider is usually a tragic but noble figure, sometimes comic but in that deep, melancholy way. And being an outsider, his existence at least implies a majority, a norm from which he is excluded or made absent. It really, thoroughly sucks to be him.

What's so powerful about Save for Crying is that it doesn't seem to be an Outsider story. The two central figures of Luv and Alfie most definitely fit the bill – we're left constantly wondering exactly what their situation is, and throughout the show I felt I spotted references to homelessness, incarceration, mental illness, physical disability, institutionalisation, addiction, illiteracy, abuse and racial vilification. These are rarely pinned down – victimisation seems to be the ocean these people swim in.

But they're also not outsiders, since there's nothing in particular that they're outside of. If there's one aspect of the production that almost everyone I've spoken to has remarked upon, it's how close to these characters we become, and how their strangeness (in language and action) come to seem entirely normal within this world. It's a remarkable achievement.

The only way I can think of to understand it is to discard the model of the outsider versus society in favour of the older, theological distinction between the elect and the preterite. Preterition was a pretty obscure branch of eschatology in which scholars suggested that the End of Days wasn't something we're heading towards, but something that has already occurred. All of the biblical prophecies have already taken place, judgement has been rendered, and our eternal fates secured. God has decided the few He will save – the Elect, or in some translations, Elite – and the rest of us poor sods will forever be preterite, the passed over.

If there's some currency to this esoteric bit of doctrine, it's that the preterite aren't the tiny fraction of people excluded from the warm embrace of contemporary civilisation but are the mass itself, everyone who knows that they will never be given the key to the inner sanctum, because they were never supposed to. The state of preterition is entered when one realises that our place in today's world system has already been decided, and that the structure of that system prevents any true escape or self-ascendancy.

Save for Crying goes one further, too – Luv and Alfie's tormentor, Ratspunk, is himself one of the preterite, just as anyone who is handed the robes of the Elite today (celebrities or politicians or the moneyed classes) must realise that to truly reach the top of the tree would require them to become a concept, an abstraction, a disembodied angel. Better to live in the muck than scrape off your skin trying to escape it.

La Mama Theatre until March 6.